At least that Kumail Nanjiani was pretty good, right?
The Big Sick star reeled off what has reliably become the best kind of SNL monologue: when a stand-up comedian just does their stuff. Not a lot of stand-ups host SNL—maybe two or three a season—but when they do we can expect a monologue that actually has a point-of-view and isn’t just a song and dance that gently riffs on the host’s public persona. This was true last night, when Nanjiani talked about Islamophobia (it’s “like Will and Grace—back and bigger than ever”) and how racists can’t even get the most basic facts right about the people they’re racist against. If you only watch one thing from last night’s episode, it should be the monologue, which hopefully is just a preview for an as-yet-unannounced upcoming stand-up special from the man.
Nanjiani was a reliable host the rest of the night, and given his comedy background unsurprisingly felt like a regular member of the ensemble and not a superstar trying their hand at comedy for a night. (This actually wasn’t his first SNL appearance—he was apparently an extra as “Indian Reporter” in a James Franco / Kings of Leon episode from 2008.) There was none of Ryan Gosling’s breaking or Gal Gadot’s stiltedness. It was a smooth, professional, utterly competent comedy show, and it was about as exciting to watch as that lukewarm praise sounds.
This show has an amiable, talented cast. Last night it had a host perfectly tuned into its wavelength. It has a collection of great comedians on its writing staff. So why is it such a slog to make it through every episode?
Last night’s cold open kicked the show off with what’s quickly become an anchor weighing the whole thing down. Donald Trump is an utter embarrassment of a man, totally unfit to be president, and could very well get us all killed before you finish reading this sentence, but he’s also already such a ridiculous cartoon that it’s very hard to effectively parody him. It’s hard to turn something as depressing as his frightening, destructive whims into comedy, and it’s also hard to churn out quality jokes about a person who’s such a grotesque parody. Trump is already the darkest comedy imaginable, so Alec Baldwin and his tired impression will never really make much of an impact. This mandatory Trump sketch (the brightest light from last week’s episode was that we were spared of Baldwin for once) lazily combined almost every current Trump scandal and story into a string of references. The NFL is unpatriotic, Puerto Rico has to save itself, Rex Tillerson is dumb, Bob Corker’s a joke, etc. It’s like the writers just looked at the headlines every day for the past week and wrote a single obvious joke about each one, and then dumped them all together into a loosely written sketch themed around Trump’s recent speech in Harrisburg, PA. (Which he pronounced as “Harass-burg,” which is almost a solid joke.) It’s the same old story here: the political stuff gets the most attention on Sunday mornings, but it’s rarely ever funny or insightful, and there’s such an overwhelming amount of already tiresome and insufficient Trump comedy that it’s impossible for any individual program to stand out from the mass.
Beyond Nanjiani, the second most encouraging thing about last night’s episode was the lack of return characters. Kate McKinnon did another turn as Debette Goldry, the heavily abused actress from the golden days of Hollywood, and both McKinnon’s Kellyanne Conway and Cecily Strong’s Melania Trump returned in inessential pretapes, but other than Goldry and Baldwin’s Trump the sketches from the studio avoided older characters. Unfortunately they also largely avoided urgency, cleverness, insight, a point of view, and, ultimately, laughs.
The strongest sketch was probably the one with the most hidebound setup. “Bank Breakers” was yet another game show sketch, specifically the kind of weekday morning game show that hasn’t existed on TV in almost 30 years. The point is to “steal” your opponent’s money by correctly answering trivia questions. Nanjiani played a guy who just wanted to spend his winnings on a new wardrobe—”jackets and jeans” was his catchphrase. Strong, meanwhile, played a veteran who did multiple tours in the Middle East, whose house was just robbed, and whose 10-year-old daughter needs a medical procedure that they otherwise can’t afford. Nanjiani’s spent the last three years playing this same state of unjustified confidence curdling into embarrassment and nervousness on Silicon Valley, so this sketch wasn’t too much of a stretch. It was a completely fine idea for a joke, performed well by a crew of solid pros. It’s not the kind of sketch you’ll think about the next day, or rush to share on the internet, or want to see return in the future with different hosts playing the reluctant, unwitting asshole. It was still probably the best sketch of the night, or at least the most confident.
There were low-key laughs in the office Halloween party sketch, where a traveling boss called in to tell his staff via speaker phone that he might have exposed them all to Hepatitis A. Nanjiani was smarmily funny as a blandly cheerful and unhelpful hotel employee in a sketch about a recently freed North Korean hostage being put up at a fancy resort hotel by the government. A late episode sketch about McKinnon as a 91-year-old nursing home resident with an extremely active sex life failed to rise above the supposedly shocking level of “old people doin’ it.” Other than the hotel sketch, these all felt a bit formless and aimless, ending suddenly.
The return of Debette Goldry was one of two moments when SNL tackled the huge Hollywood scandal of the week, the revelations of rampant sexual abuse and harassment from producer Harvey Weinstein for the past several decades. This recurring sketch is built upon a strong idea: contemporary actresses (here it was Leslie Jones as Viola Davis and Strong as Marion Cotillard) talk about the difficulties they face as women in Hollywood, from underwritten roles as wives and girlfriends, to how roles dry up as they enter their late 30s. And then McKinnon as Goldry, a classic starlet who started in the studio system days of the ‘30s and ‘40s, makes incredibly dark comments based on real life events about being regularly drugged, abused and exploited by the men who ran the movie industry. You’d think the Weinstein news would almost destroy this sketch—we now know, without any doubt, that the “casting couch” is still a real thing that actresses have to contend with, and that they’re still viewed as easily manipulated prey. Instead they subtly shift the focus here. The main joke now becomes, as Goldry says, that “everything old is new again,” from open sexual abuse of Hollywood actresses to Nazis marching in the street. Instead of looking askance at the horror stories of Goldry, the Davises and Cotillards of the sketch now commiserate with her. It’s a smart pivot, but it doesn’t change the fact that the basic underlying structure of this sketch feels about as old as Goldry now.
Weinstein was also the main focus of the first few jokes of Weekend Update, before it segued into more Trump material. Michael Che showed some fire when he mocked Trump’s absurd riff on how people don’t talk about Christmas anymore at last week’s ironically named Values Voters Summit. Cecily Strong showed up as Ivana Trump in a weak segment about the non-controversy over Ivana calling herself “the first lady.” Che and Colin Jost remain a little too disinterested, a little too smug, and far too pleased with their glib one-liners. It ended with a sincere note on how to donate to Puerto Rico relief, which was good.
The two pretapes were both political in nature, which automatically kneecaps them a bit. An It parody with McKinnon’s Kellyanne Conway as Pennywise the Dancing Clown desperately trying to trick Alex Moffat’s Anderson Cooper into booking her on CNN was forced and unfunny. The second video, near the end of the episode, featured Nanjiani as a Gucci call center worker in Pakistan who strikes up a relationship with regular caller Melania Trump (played, again, by Strong.) It’s a well-crafted film—patiently paced, a solemn tone, with empathetic narration from Nanjiani—but SNL’s depiction of Melania as an unwilling victim still rings just a little bit hollow. It both infantilizes the real Melania and pardons her for her complicity with Trump’s destructive presidency. As well-intentioned as this pretape is, it’s still built on a faulty assumption.
Pink also sang a couple of songs. They were Pink-ish. She wore what looked like a puffy vest with a beach towel and a flannel shirt as a skirt during one of them. Look, we’re reviewing comedy here, not music.
Again, at least we had Nanjiani around to cut a confident, professional profile while muddling through some mediocre comedy this week. That alone makes this a step up from the first two episodes of the season. Larry David will be hosting the next episode, so maybe he’ll be able to salvage that one too, assuming it needs salvaging. We’ll find out in three weeks, in the brand new month of November. That feels like a long break this early in the season, but if you’re starved for SNL in the meantime you can always watch the animated David S. Pumpkins special airing the week before Halloween.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.